The burqa and niqab: can travelers get used to anything? Should they?

Travel broadens the mind, at least for most people. As we explore different cultures and beliefs we see that for the most part they’re OK. While there are always local customs we just can’t follow, in general the more we travel, the more accepting we become.

But how accepting should we get? I’ve traveled extensively in the Muslim world and I’ve yet to figure out exactly how I feel about the burqa and niqab, two types of female Islamic clothing that cover the face. For the vast majority of the world’s population, the face is a key to identity. We look at the face to tell what a person is thinking and feeling. It’s how we spot friends and enemies at a distance. To see a covered face makes many people suspicious. In most cultures, it means the person has something to hide.

Here in Europe a debate is raging over whether the face veil should be banned. Some politicians say it’s oppressive and against Western values, while others defend it as part of a cultural heritage that needs to be tolerated in a free society. One thing these pundits have in common is that they talk about women who cover their faces, but very few actually talk with them. Regarding the burqa ban in France, one female friend quipped, “It’s just another case of men telling women what to wear.” Here’s a video from the BBC program Newsnight that interviews Muslim women both for and against veils.

This video makes two important points: that opinion is divided in the Muslim community over face covering, and that there are thinking, educated people under those veils.As a Western man I haven’t had many opportunities to talk with covered women, but when traveling in Somaliland I got to talk to a few niqabis. While talking with them I discovered that their personalities began to emerge. I also kept a lot of eye contact since there was nothing else to look at. The eyes are always expressive. Among niqabis they’re even more so.

Fellow travel writer Lara Dunston taught in Abu Dhabi for many years and noticed the same thing. The veil didn’t stop her from getting to know people as individuals. She even became able to recognize people just from their eyes. She says the vast majority of her students cover by choice. In the book From My Sisters’ Lips, Muslim convert Na’ima bint Robert talks about why she chose to cover her face, and interviews others who made the same choice. Central to their decision was the desire to be known for what they think, not how they look. They see the veil as accentuating a person’s identity rather than hiding it.

If only it were that straightforward. In many places it’s not individual choice but social pressure or even force of law that makes women cover their faces. Saudi Arabia, which is our ally because we need their oil and they need our weapons, has been instrumental in the global spread of radical Islam. For example, they’re building beautiful mosques and madrasas in the Muslim regions of Ethiopia in order to change what has been a bastion of liberal Islam. I’ll never forget passing through one village where the only stone building, and the only one that had more than one storey, was a Saudi-built mosque. Walking along the road in the noonday sun was a woman in a niqab with a huge bundle of firewood over her back. I was hot just standing there. I can’t imagine how she must have felt.

Take this woman: uneducated, almost certainly illiterate, who’s probably never been outside her own region, and introduce her to a Saudi cleric with his nice car and clothes and education, and he tells her she needs to cover her face or Allah will be angry and her neighbors will think she’s a slut. What’s she going to do? That’s not a choice; that’s oppression pure and simple.

In a response to the controversial “Just Say No To Burqas” mural in Australia, a Muslim activist friend of mine Asra Nomani said, “‘Say No To Burqas,’ says ‘no’ to not only burqas but the interpretation of Islam that says that women are too sexy for their faces and have to cover up to be ‘good Muslims.’ It’s important that we reject the interpretation of Islam that sanctions burqas. One girl who had to wear a burqa in my village in India asked me, ‘What’s it like to feel the sun shine on your face?'”

Asra makes a good point that the burqa is only one interpretation of Islam. The Koran and Hadith say that both men and women should dress modestly. They say nothing about women bundling themselves up from head to toe in yards of cloth.

An educated debate about this issue is becoming increasingly important as Western society becomes more multicultural. It’s becoming more important to me personally. I spend every summer in Oxford. Among the many Muslims there, most women wear headscarves, something that I barely notice anymore. A small minority of women wear the niqab, including a local pharmacist. Last year we were in the park and my son, then four years old, saw one of the mothers wearing a niqab.

“Why is she hiding her face?” he asked.

“Because she wants to for her religion,” I said.

“SHE SHOULD TAKE IT OFF!” he said in that typical child voice that carries for miles.

“Only if she wants to,” I replied rather lamely.

I couldn’t think of a better answer. I still can’t.

Somalia’s Al-Shabab bans handshakes between men and women

As if you didn’t have enough reasons to avoid visiting Somalia, Al-Shabab has given you another. BBC reports that the Islamist group has banned handshakes between men and women in the town of Jowhar. It’s also illegal to walk with or chat with a member of the opposite sex you’re not related to.

It’s not clear what the punishment would be for committing these “crimes”, but BBC’s correspondent in Mogadishu says a common punishment is public flogging.

Al-Shabab controls much of southern and central Somalia and rules under a harsh form of Shariah law that, in the humble opinion of this agnostic, has nothing to do with real Islam. I’ve read the Koran twice and don’t recall anything about it being a sin to shake hands or talk with someone of the opposite sex. In fact, I’ve had conversations in public with many devout Muslim women, including Somali women. Looks like these women could tell Al-Shabab a thing or two about Islam.

Luckily not all of Somalia is controlled by these idiots. In the north part of the country, Puntland remains free from their rule, although it’s full of pirates, and Somaliland is a safe place to travel. When visiting Somaliland I met a lot of refugees from the south and they all felt tremendously grateful that they didn’t have to live with Al-Shabab’s false form of Islam.

[Image courtesy user Hucz via Wikimedia Commons]

Ask Gadling: What to do in a Muslim country during Ramadan

Ramadan is a month-long religious festival during which Muslims don’t eat, drink, smoke, or have sex from sunup to sundown. This reminds them what it’s like to be without the things they take for granted, and encourages them to be thankful for what they have. Certain people are excused from fasting, such as children, the sick, the pregnant, menstruating women, and travelers. The rest of the population has to suck it up and get through the day.

Traveling in a Muslim country during Ramadan poses two problems–you can’t eat in public and tourist sights may be closed. In countries such as Turkey and Egypt tourism is such a big draw that major sites will remain open and there are enough restaurants catering to non-Muslims that you’ll be able to eat. In smaller towns, however, you might find the attractions and restaurants closed. Gadling’s Grant Martin was visiting Cairo during Ramadan and found many places had abbreviated hours so the staff could eat at the appropriate times. He also found that while touristy restaurants remained open, some didn’t serve alcohol. Gadling’s Meg Nesterov, who’s living in Istanbul, reported very little changed during the fast.

The big challenge comes in more devout, less visited countries. Back in 1994 while I was crossing Asia, Ramadan started during my last week in Iran and my first three weeks in Pakistan. Pretty much everything shut except for museums in major cities and large archaeological sites such as Mohenjo-daro. Restaurants all closed their doors and I found myself in the odd situation of being an agnostic compelled to observe Ramadan.

So what to do?

Get into the spirit. Ramadan is one of the biggest occasions of the Muslim calendar and you’re there to witness it firsthand. You’ll almost certainly be invited to an iftar, the evening meal right after sunset. Muslims make up for their day of hunger with some seriously good cooking, and it’s traditional to invite a guest. One of my coolest travel memories was an iftar at a home for deaf people in Karachi. We communicated by hand signals the entire evening and one of my hosts gave me a silent tour of the city.

Be flexible with your hours. While shops and restaurants may be shut during the day, they often stay open long into the night.
Visit a mosque. You can rest assured that some of the major sights of any Muslim city will remain open during Ramadan–the mosques. Many are centuries old and are architectural jewels, like this one in New Delhi photographed by user jrodmanjr and uploaded to Gadling’s flickr photostream. Mosques aren’t only a place of worship, they’re a refuge from the heat and bustle of the street, a place where people sit around and chat. This makes them great places to meet locals. I’ve been inside dozens of mosques in many different countries and always found them welcoming. I’ve come across a few in Iran and India that were closed to non-Muslims, but in both countries I found mosques where the worshipers greeted me with friendliness.

Eat if you must. Strangely enough, I found food for sale everywhere in Pakistan and Iran. Nobody was eating, but they were shopping in preparation for breaking the fast. Shopping in daylight hours can be a bit awkward, however. The guy with the rumbling stomach selling oranges in the market knows that Westerner is going to sneak back to his hotel room and gorge himself. I found I couldn’t go the whole day without eating and kept a cache of food back in my room for secret snacks. Out of consideration for the hungry vendors I tried to do my shopping at night.

Know when Ramadan occurs. Ramadan is determined by the Muslim lunar calendar and thus varies from year to year. The exact start depends on when the first sliver of the crescent moon is spotted, which in 2011 Ramadan will be around August 1.

Be understanding. I get grumpy if my lunch is more than an hour late, so I can imagine what I’d be like if I skipped food all day. It must be extra hard for the smokers. Many folks are going to be a bit edgy. By the afternoon they may be lethargic or will have disappeared to take a long nap. Ramadan is a big challenge, so cut them some slack. Just wait until half an hour after sunset, though, and you’ll find everyone in a festive mood.

Men are not allowed to walk dogs (or cats) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia due to newly passed law

The reason why men aren’t allowed to walk dogs or take cats out on a stroll in Riyadh as of Wednesday is because they aren’t allowed to buy pets there any more. A hamster, maybe. A goldfish, probably, but not a dog or a cat. If a person has a pet already, the person can keep the pet, just not take it outside. As of Wednesday, the ban went into effect.

According to this AP article, some men, it seems, were using their furry friends as a way to get up close and personal with women and bother families–a big no no in Saudi Arabia. The sexes are to be separate from each other. Dogs and cats are ice breakers for bridging the divide.

As bans go, this one sounds a bit loosey goosey since as of the writing of the article, people didn’t know about the ban, including a pet shop owner. The other detail the article pointed out is that it’s not often that people walk dogs in Riyadh anyway and when do people really walk cats?

From what the people who were interviewed said, it doesn’t sound as if people are planning to follow the ban, just like what happened when there was a ban on cell phones with cameras back in 2004. The fear there was that people of the opposite sex would use the cameras to take pictures of each other. People didn’t go along with that ban so it was dropped.

If you are planning on heading to Saudi Arabia, I’d leave the pooch or kitty at home unless you don’t mind them having a stay under the care of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the name for the religious police who are doing the pet confiscating.

One thought about this ban is that it’s really to control pet ownership which is seen as a Western influence. Dog ownership has not been part of Saudi culture until more recently. Cats, though, have, so it is unclear why they are being picked on.

Dispatches from around the world

The Search for Homosexuals in Iran

I don’t want to get political or anything, but I just have to say that New York has been fun this week with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cruising the city and enjoying the spotlight.

My gay friends have especially enjoyed his statements about Iran having no homosexuals and, now, they feel committed to go there and test it out. On the contrary, I have heard that gay sex may be quite common in Islamic countries because it is often not considered “real sex.”

Leave it to The Borowitz Report to deal with the issue: “Iran Invites UN Inspectors to Find Homosexuals in Iran, Permits Use of Advanced Gaydar.”

Don’t laugh too hard. This is a serious issue.